Social workers help ensure every person has resources and opportunities, and that work hasn’t stopped during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it’s adapted and increased because creative, passionate people have dedicated themselves to it.
Angelique Thomas, LMSW (SW ‘2016) is the only social worker on staff with the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), a free-standing, non-profit law office with specialized full-time staff attorneys and investigators working to free innocent life-sentenced prisoners in Louisiana and Mississippi. Since 2001, they have freed or exonerated 36 individuals who combined have served over 830 years in prison.
IPNO also supports their released and exonerated clients to live well and fully in the world after leaving prison. That’s where Angelique comes in as the organization’s Client Services Specialist.
“Many of our clients are not eligible for the re-entry services provided by the system,” Angelique says. “We work with them to learn new skills, especially those related to technology, and secure housing and employment. We also work with their families.”
This range of support is extensive, ensuring IPNO’s clients look after their well-being. “Going to regular physical and mental health appointments is an important habit to develop and maintain,” says Angelique. “We check in with our clients about those and offer to give them rides to their doctors’ or therapists’ offices. Sometimes that involves addressing any concerns they might have or working together to form a plan or list of questions.”
Much of this support involves face-to-face interaction. During stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Angelique and her team, including Christine Sterling, a social work intern from Tulane University School of Social Work, have found new ways of making these connections and anticipating needs. They are checking in by phone at least once a week with their clients, guiding them through online benefit sign-ups, and delivering essential items like groceries, cleaning supplies, and masks.
"We have numerous clients affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to their wrongful incarcerations. We are helping them find ways to address that, especially because symptoms can be exacerbated by the current quarantine,” says Angelique. “We're trying to be proactive in order to avoid a build-up of stressors.”
For their released and exonerated clients, IPNO is maintaining contact and passing on important information. They typically hold one event a month. Because they aren’t able to do those in-person events now, they are coordinating Zoom to accomplish that. “The check-ins to get these online events established has allowed us to talk to our clients about other needs and do a social and skill check with them,” says Angelique.
IPNO cannot personally visit their incarcerated clients. “We want to make sure they know they are not forgotten,” Angelique says. “We are trying to keep them informed and are continuing to work their cases.”
As further support of this population, they are providing masks and other personal protective equipment to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections. “We reached out to see if we could get masks to our clients who are currently incarcerated,” says Angelique. They now have an arrangement with the department, which will issue masks to individuals - staff or incarcerated people - who will then have the masks for their useful lifespan. “The staff are the ones with the in-and-out privileges, so it’s important that they have these masks to protect those individuals within the facilities,” Angelique says. “Stay-at-home orders are not like being in prison. Those in the criminal justice system don’t have access to the services they need, and they cannot social distance as all facilities have communal sleeping, showering, and dining,” she says.
Having spent most of her career working within the criminal justice system, Angelique was drawn to social work while working as a defense investigator, meeting with people to re-investigate their cases on appeal and get a life history. “In those conversations, I saw multigenerational trauma and mental illness, and I discovered I wanted to help in other ways - to be proactive.”
Angelique is continuing to learn from those she serves. “The strengths of our clients are remarkable. They've survived the unimaginable,” she says.
Those interested in supporting IPNO to develop funding to continue providing services, fill the gap in the system, and provide masks can visit their website.